August 2016


Shrine of our lady of madhu
August 2016




The quadrangle is a picture of serenity

Blue flags fluttered in the wind, blending and reaching up to the sky. Yellow and white Catholic Church flags adorned the walkways. The Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Madhu glistened in the sun, the silence and stillness of the church precincts echoing its power.


Words Keshini de Silva | Photography Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham and Menaka Aravinda


After a five-hour journey along the Western coast we were in Mannar, home to the miraculous statue of Mother Mary. The road leading to the church runs through the thick Madhu sanctuary. My grandmother, who last travelled there during her childhood, had described her journey to the shrine as an arduous trek through the jungle. The journey they believed reflected the zeal of ones piety and would strengthen ones faith. Today we travelled on a smooth winding tarmac admiring the forest that flanked our sides.


The pale marble Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu came into view amidst the clear blue backdrop of the sky. Made of an unidentified wood, the statue at its alter is believed to have arrived from Portugal although the rest of its history has been lost with time. There are many conflicting theories about the beginnings of the shrine; the overarching theory being that during the Dutch persecution of Catholics, 20 families in Manthai fled intimidation with the statue. They arrived here, at a place called Maruthamadhu, an area which was then under the reign of the Kandyan Kingdom. In a mud chapel hidden in the jungle, they worshipped in secret until colonisation by the British.


A spinoff tale relates to a woman named Helena who was one of 700 other Catholics fleeing Jaffna and arrived here. She is said to have been instrumental in building the first abode of the statue in Madhu and was immortalised as Santa Lena (Saint Helena). The incident led to the coining of another name for the church ‘Silena-Marutha Madhu' in memory of her.


Many miracles are associated with the statue of Our Lady of Madhu. The faithful have attributed to it countless powers, the strongest being that of the power of healing giving the statue the name Our Lady of Good Health.
It was only moved during the three decade conflict, where the sacred statue was shifted a 50km distance away from the church for protection.


As we strolled through the church confines under the glowing afternoon sun, we found the grounds quiet and composed with subtle signs of preparation for the Madhu feast. The ambience emanated a spiritual power within which ones worldly burdens seem to lift away. Inside the church, under the merciful gaze of Mother Mary, devotees kneeled, sat and stood for hours on end. In an act of both penance and prayer for blessings, many travelled down the isle on their knees with eyes locked on the statue and arms outstretched. In silence or aloud they were seeking the Mother's intervention in their pleas to God. After the intentions, they would head to the steel shed to light candles as an offering. Just past it they would visit the holy chamber where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for devotion.

A pilgrimage to the Madhu Church is to Roman Catholics in Sri Lanka a must at least once in their lifetime.


Far onto the opposite side of the church was a Rosary Meditation Centre with sculptured depictions of the four mysteries of the Rosary: Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and Luminous. It was blessed by Pope Francis in January 2015, on a historic first pontiff visit to the Madhu shrine.


A pilgrimage to the Madhu Church is to Roman Catholics in Sri Lanka a must at least once in their lifetime. For many it is an annual family tradition to travel here for the main feast in August that celebrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary to heaven. The feast commences on August 6 with the hoisting of the flagstaff, after which follows the nine-day preparation until the High Mass on August 15. During the Madhu festival the grounds are teeming with devotees and lilting with prayers of the faithful.


To accommodate the thousands that gather, mass is usually held at the altar in the entrance pavilion. The eucharistic liturgy will be celebrated in the morning by Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and seven bishops in Sinhala, Tamil and English. It will be followed by a procession within the church precincts. The quadrangle, grandly decorated with flags and fragrant bouquets, will be bursting at the seams to accommodate the sea of people. For those who cannot witness the service in person, it will be broadcast live on television. In an act of benevolence, pilgrims usually take home medals, holy water and prayer cards, blessed during the feast, back home to distribute amongst their loved ones.


Already families were camped out on the grounds, setting up tents weeks before the annual feast. This was to assure their accommodation as they partake in festivities. Chaste makeshift tents made of rope and waterproof sheets occupied several blocks. Camping is an inherent part of the Madhu pilgrimage. It is a centuries' old tradition beginning with devotees travelling by boat or bullock cart to the church and would stay on for at least two weeks before heading home. A custom passed down the generation; fisher families from Negombo, Chilaw and Vankalai continue to travel here by boat. However, in the present the choice mode of transport are buses, lorries, vans and three wheelers.


Life here was unpretentious and unassuming. The campers had formed a sort of community, sharing a cup of tea with their neighbours while the children played together in groups. In the searing heat of the arid zone, the motorcycles that sold ice cream or curd and treacle were welcomed with glee.


As dusk claimed the skies we sat on the quadrangle benches basking in the serenity. The balmy windy embrace of Mother Nature symbolised the peace and compassion one feels in the Holy Mother's presence at the sanctified surroundings of Madhu.

 

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    Devotees light candles after intentions

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    The miraculous statue of Our Lady of Madhu

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    On the road to Madhu: the entrance of the road that runs through the Madhu sanctuary

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    Devotees sit, kneel and stand, their hands clasped in prayer

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    The outdoor pavilion where Mass is held

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    The quaint Rosary Meditation Centre

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